'Completely unacceptable and totally disgusting': N.S. premier to examine COVID-19 enforcement following deadly outbreak linked to faith gathering
Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston says he is reviewing the province's enforcement rules after health officials linked a faith gathering to a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at a seniors’ home in northern Nova Scotia.
Houston didn't mince his words during a COVID-19 update on Wednesday, saying he was appalled by the comments of those allegedly involved.
"The comments downplaying the seriousness of what's happening, the comments minimizing the loss of life are completely unacceptable and totally disgusting," he said.
"I can't imagine that at this stage of the pandemic, with the devastation that we've seen to families and to communities that we have people who believe they can pick and choose which rules that they follow."
Thirty-one new COVID-19 cases were reported in Nova Scotia Tuesday, including three more at the East Cumberland Lodge. Health officials on Monday reported the COVID-19-related deaths of two residents in their 80s.
Houston said the question he's been struggling with is whether the cases coming from the event are a result of a policy or enforcement issue.
"My gut tells me that whatever rules were in place, this particular group of people would have simply done what they wanted."
"So that means it's really down to enforcement and compliance."
Houston said he is also concerned about the delay of enforcement in the matter and plans to get to the bottom of it.
In a release, the Nova Scotia government says it has fined Robert Smith, pastor of the Gospel Light Baptist Church in Amherst, for a gathering which contravened the COVID-19 order under the Health Protection Act.
The gathering took place from October 25 to 29 in Amherst.
The fine amount was $2,422.
"Police are responsible for investigating any possible criminal aspect which would involve the laying of charges under the Criminal Code," the release says.
Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, said he was also both frustrated and angry at the situation.
"To those who say that our proof of vaccination protocols infringe on your freedoms, I'd say that freedoms come with responsibilities," he said.
"Your personal freedom has well-established ethical and legal boundaries when it comes to significant risk to others."
Brandon Lake, pastor of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Bridgetown, N.S., said in an interview that he and about 20 members of his congregation attended the event organized by Smith. It was attended by "less than 100 people," Lake said, adding that organizers believed they were following the government's COVID-19 guidelines.
He said it was "unclear" at the time whether participants at faith gatherings were required to show proof of vaccination. The province's health authorities, meanwhile, have said the event's organizers did not require attendees to show vaccination proof.
Nova Scotia's current COVID-19 health orders include a requirement for proof of vaccination for indoor and outdoor festivals and for events involving arts and culture. Proof of vaccination is not required for regular religious services.
Lake said the outbreak linked to the gathering was an "unfortunate thing that happened," adding that the number of people who attended was smaller than the number of attendees for regular Sunday church services across the province.
"It can happen anywhere," he said. "It certainly sobered me, because we've been relatively untouched by (COVID-19) here in this area, and it sobers me as to how quickly it can spread."
Meanwhile, Smith was heard in a recording of his church sermon last Sunday describing what happened as "unfortunate."
"This whole event has been hard, there's no doubt about that," Smith said in the video posted to Facebook. "It's been hard on me, not just emotionally, but physically. But we still have to glorify God it's a choice each of us have to make."
Smith added that while there are people trying to "shame us," it doesn't mean "we have to be ashamed." He asked the congregation whether their phones had been ringing off the hook by news agencies, saying "mine has."
"People are trying to shame us, but I will never be ashamed of what I do for Christ. Is the thing unfortunate? Yes, but I'm not ashamed because I did what I'm 110 per cent sure Christ wanted me to do."
That Facebook post, which could be seen on Tuesday, has since been taken down.
With files from The Canadian Press.